Sometimes the theater does more than entertain. It provides guidance, moral or practical, for difficult moments of life. Howard Korder's "Search and Destroy" did just that for me.
Like many Americans, I have overused my plastic and want to reduce my debt. The simplest way to do so, I thought, would be to become a drug dealer. I might have pursued that aggressively had I not seen "Search and Destroy," a cautionary tale about a young man who embarks on the same course.
It is a path, I learned, marked by deception and violence. Other drug dealers apparently cannot be trusted, and in order to succeed you really do have to use guns. Had I known this, I might not even have considered it as a moonlighting possibility.
This, of course, is why we need the theater. Perhaps I should amend that to: This is why I need the theater. Anyone who sees a lot of movies and TV already knows what Korder told me. The only thing interesting about the play is its style, which owes a lot to the self-conscious rhythms of David Mamet.
Like his mentor, Korder seems to view verbal facility more as a form of machismo than as a vehicle for conveying characters or material of any depth. Also like Mamet, Korder has a powerful sense of what is theatrically viable.
Thus, the evening has a certain vitality despite the fact the characters are types and the plot is entirely predictable. The vitality comes in large part from the performances and the smooth direction of David Chambers.
As the focal character, Griffin Dunne projects a certain innocence and likeableness even as his acts become uglier. Among the superb supporting cast standouts are Keith Szarabajka as his elegant associate, Stephen McHattie as a sinister evangelist of self-improvement, Welker White as a macabre screenwriter, and Paul Guilfoyle as a garrulous, grungy middleman.
Beware of critics bearing gifts.
When Howard Korder's play "Boys' Life" - a parable of putative masculinity in the age of Howard Stern and David Letterman - was given at Lincoln Center a few seasons back, it was - it seemed to me - ludicrously, if luckily, overpraised, its slapdash promise being garlanded as achievement beyond its measure.
Now, doubtless riding the backwash of that approval, the young playwright has emerged with an even more slapdash and fragmentary offering, "Search and Destroy," which last night opened at the Circle in the Square.
This new "Search and Destroy" is not worth much of a search, and it self-destructs. Doubtless some of Korder's friendly critics willl remain loyal, but it would not surprise me if this were a backwash resulting in a backlash.
The play opens with a scene - played to the hilt by a truly brilliant Griffin Dunne as its deflated hero, Martin Mirkheim - which almost encapsulates Korder's perfectly real promise. It is funny, audacious and gets the play off to a zip-roaring start.
Mirkheim, an abrasively nerdy, small-time entrepreneur apparently specializing in the promotion of ice shows, has been audited for back taxes by the State of Florida. Now the teaxman cometh and Mirkheim is on the wrong side of a desk, being asked to account - and even pay - for his fiscal irresponsibility.
Instantly, the nerd turns like a worm on a hook, and starts to berate the taxman. It is an exhilarating start to a play that then fizzles from this boisterously sounded word "Go!"
Mirkheim wants to leave something of lasting worth in the world - he wants to go Hollywood and make movies. What follows is a clumsily constructed, foolishly related fantasy of power that holds together like sugar-free Jello in a tropical tornado.
Our hero resolves to make a movie out of a popular self-help best seller, and after a series of adventures and misadventures (which the author would doubtless regard as Candide-like, but which you might think just bloody silly) involving drugs and murder, he ends up in a grotesquely rich Hollywood seat of power offering a tax investigator (the wheels of Florida grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly small) the choice of a bribe or a bullet.
The style, flavor and even theme remind you of David Mamet - but without that grip on working-stiff reality that gives Mamet's own work its special truthfulness. Korder goes over the top without even making you care about the middle or the bottom.
Korder's brief blackout scenes - many pretty much unconnected, right up to the totally disconnected finale - are so dysfunctional either as play or metaphor that director David Chambers, using a spartanly spare scenic design by Chris Barreca and helpful lighting by Chris Parry, can be at least congratulated at keeping them both moving and afloat.
And, in fairness, the performers carry out their cartoon-style shtiks with admirable chutzpa. Dunne does everything but beg to make the incredible if not credible, then at least tolerable (and amusing), Keith Szarabajka and Paul Guilfoyle suggest almost likely denizens of the drug overworld, while Stephen McHattie proves commandingly unpleasant as a self-help czar helping himself.
But the play is simply violent action locked into meaningless globules of dialogue being pretentiously passed off as wit, wisdom and philosophy. Perhaps one should always be wary of plays that announce: "TIME: The present ... PLACE: The United States of America." You almost know right then and there that it is unlikely to have anything to do with us here right now.
Facing bankruptcy and far over his head in back taxes, Martin Mirkheim has only one marketable asset: a natural ability to lie. Obviously, he will try to enter the movie business. In Howard Korder's malevolent comedy, "Search and Destroy," Mirkheim cheats and schemes his way to the top. This is a play about the American dream, or, if you will, the death of the American dream.
In the new work, as in "Boys' Life," Mr. Korder demonstrates a sharp wit and an insider's grasp of contemporary jargon. There is often a David Mamet beat to his language, with half-sentences repeated and inverted, as in "Top of the food chain, you're not," offered as a key comment on the shallow protagonist of "Search and Destroy."
The problem with the play is not so much that it speeds its plow over familiar terrain but that the sum is less than some of its parts. The play spins along, idles as if waiting to be refueled, then reaches for a black comic conclusion. Watching it at Circle in the Square, where it arrived last night after two previous regional productions with different casts, one is reminded of the fact that Mr. Korder has, up to now, been most successful at the short form.
The funniest scenes in "Search and Destroy" are like comedy sketches or brief one-act plays. Included in that category is the prologue in which Mirkheim (Griffin Dunne) chatters away about his hapless life as if he is talking to his psychiatrist. The truth is he is in conference with his accountant, who is trying to straighten out his chaotic business affairs.
Several quick cuts later, a demure receptionist is telling him the gory plot of her unfilmed script. This is Mr. Korder's apt commentary on our movie madness, the fact that everyone has a script or a film idea to peddle. The woman's scenario is ripe with maimings and mutilations, enough to make Elm Street nightmares look like the mildest of daydreams. The scene is a sardonic set piece, one of several in this open-gaited play. But it is Mirkheim, not the receptionist, who is supposed to be the driving force behind the narrative, and he is as bumbling as he is obsessive. Although his ineptitude is itself a commentary on corporate vacuity, it wears thin as a comic device and vitiates the audience's interest.
This is in spite of the intensity of Mr. Dunne's performance. As played by the actor, the character is so tightly wound that with one tap on his head his feverish brain might explode. A mass of worry lines, he finds himself emotionally straitjacketed in a series of predicaments that would send any ordinary man back to his original profession, booking circus and wrestling acts. When he finally confronts the one man he is desperate to meet, Mr. Dunne happens to be handcuffed to a chair, which does not stop him from fawning (physically a neat feat for the actor).
Mr. Dunne's first objective is to obtain the movie rights to a doctor's mystical self-help novel, but the author is unapproachable. This leads the hero to travel the country looking for the doctor, touching down in cities that are indistinguishable from one another. At least one stop could easily be excised. Despite a mountain of discouragement, Mr. Dunne remains persistent.
In his Broadway debut, the actor exhibits a flair for comedy of self-parody. We smile as his character repeatedly makes a fool of himself, a sure sign that he will fail upward. Is this way the world will end, not with a bang but with a wimp? Looking for motivation within, one might say that this would-be movie producer has a fear of fear. He wants to soar, but in terms of self-esteem and self-promotional ability, he is grounded.
As another character predicts, the 90's will be "the fear decade." Fear is endemic to the play, as it moves through drug dealing and acts of violence. The antidote to terror, Mr. Korder would have us believe, is nerve. Nerviness and a compulsion to take chances eventually carry the hero to a position of power; he even changes his last name to Power to elude the feds on the track of his taxes. Still, in the end it is unclear what moral or lack of it Mirkheim is intended to represent.
Keith Szarabajka is suave as Mirkheim's smartly suited chief adviser, and there are malicious cameo performances by Paul Guilfoyle as a nervous drug dealer, Stephen McHattie as the greedy author -- he snarls like George C. Scott -- and Welker White as the not-so-innocent screenwriter who probably has the brightest future in Hollywood.
Accenting the play's own geographic sprawl, the open stage is marked like an airport landing strip or highway, with sparse furniture standing in for more elaborate settings. Under David Chambers's brisk direction, the play is buoyed by its cynicism at the same time that it is hobbled by its choice of hero and an inability to gather momentum. In Mr. Korder's dire view of the fear decade, the producer and his peers are waiting for opportunism to knock.